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Tag: "labor"

Thorne Auchter

[ 15 ] August 7, 2014 |

When we think back to the Reagan Administration, there are so many loathsome characters. Oliver North. John Poindexter. James Watt. Jeane Kirkpatrick. Ed Meese. We could go on and on. But as happens in any modern Republican administration, there are all sorts of really powerful appointees who go totally under the radar. Because of my logging book, I became acquainted with one Thorne Auchter, a Florida construction contractor who Reagan named as head of OSHA. Auchter completely turned OSHA away from the semi-crusading agency it was during the Carter years under the leadership of Eula Bingham and moved it toward an employer services agency that it so often remains today. Part of the process was Auchter killing a bunch of OSHA videos the agency made to help workers fight for safety and health on the job. But you can see them here and they are pretty great.

Imagine, a government that sought to help workers rather than plutocrats. I know it must be dream.

Which Side Am I On? When it Comes to American Labor Unions, the Side of American Workers

[ 55 ] August 6, 2014 |

Andrew Ross’ position in this debate at Truthout over Israel and Palestine bothered me because he calls for the American labor movement to support the BDS movement. Although I personally support BDS, I don’t see why American labor would do that. How would this benefit American workers? What possible upside is there here? Who would make such a decision? Would it be democratic or would it be a top-down decision made by the big union bureaucrats the left loves to hate? Because when it comes to foreign policy and organized labor, the left does seem to be interested in a top down approach to these problems. Well, either that or this debate is existing in a fairyland that believes American workers would care enough about the issue and then vote or otherwise democratically decide to take a position on a foreign policy question that does not concern their lives specifically–and that those workers would take the left-wing position on that foreign policy question.

In other words, this is the kind of the debate that a place like Truthout loves (and that’s fine) but which doesn’t have any real resonance for American workers as they exist in the real world.

There is a weird relationship between the left and organized labor on foreign policy. We all know how horrible the AFL-CIO was in the Cold War, supporting right-wing coups, serving as willing dupes of the CIA, etc. It’s an awful and inexcusable history. I think there is also absolutely no question that to extent that American rank and file workers had opinions on these issues, the overwhelming majority were anti-communist and would have fully supported its leaders in fighting communism. But left more unquestioned is why American labor should have a foreign policy on issues outside of those affecting workers overseas. When, broadly conceived, there are lots of workers in both Israel and Palestine, it’s unclear what the point of getting involved would be. Justice, you say. But is worldwide justice on all issues in fact the point of the labor movement?

In the end, the left wants organized labor to be the IWW. But while the Wobblies were very good at international solidarity, they not only had very little ability to mobilize American workers on these questions, but these positions were largely held by even a small number of Wobblies–its small leadership class, some of its east coast unions, and the hard-core syndicalists. Even for the IWW, the majority of its rank and file members ranged from not caring to being quite pro-patriotism on foreign policy issues, at least in my reading of the union’s history and exploring the relationship between committed Wobblies who wrote in Industrial Worker and people who joined up because it gave them some hope to improve their lives.

If the left critiques organized labor as having a bad foreign policy, in the past if not in the present, the other major critique is that unions are undemocratic and that this lack of democracy is a major reason for the decline of the labor movement. While I agree that there isn’t a lot of democratic decision making in many unions, I rather strongly disagree that it is why labor is struggling today (the structural changes of automation, globalization, capital mobility, and the organized business lobby are far more important). I think a real problem a lot of leftists have in conceptualizing labor is that they assume democracy=the position in which they believe. But of course, democratic decision making in labor unions in the last 50 years would have meant (and often did mean) racial segregation. It meant gender discrimination. It meant hating environmentalists who were not at fault for workers’ lost jobs. It also meant a Cold War foreign policy. And today, it would probably mean supporting Israel, not Palestine. And if Ross and others want the AFL-CIO leadership to make bold pronouncements on these issues, I do think they have to reconcile it with whether such a decision would represent the rank and file in any meaningful way.

Personally, I don’t think American labor has too much business getting involved in these questions, especially given the dire situation it finds itself in. Yes, taking more positions on international issues that aren’t directly related to its own interests but that are just might endear it to the left, but that’s a very small number of people and it always was. When the communists ran the International Woodworkers of America in the late 1930s, the newspaper ran tons of stories on the Spanish Civil War and other anti-fascist stories. The newspaper focusing on this stuff instead of the actual organizing of Northwestern loggers was a powerful tool in the hands of the anti-communists, who eventually won control of the union with the assistance of John L. Lewis and his lieutenant Adolph Gerner. But that battle wasn’t just top down. It was basically the entire rank and file in Oregon revolting against the communists near the Canadian border. It does not help us understand the labor movement to assume the rank and file always wanted to move to the left and the big bad leadership wanted to move to the right. Often, it was the opposite of that. I’m not confident the situation would be any more favorable to the left with the American rank and file today.

This is probably too long of a post for a relatively minor article, but I think the point is important. Promoting American labor taking controversial foreign policy stances is probably pretty undemocratic and doesn’t help American unions organize workers or represent the ones they have under contract. If American unions do want to take this issue on, then they should go for it, but I don’t see much evidence that it would be on the side of Palestine and if it wasn’t, it’s far too easy to just dismiss this as another example of the legacy of the Cold War. Because again, I’m not seeing a rank and file clamor for American labor to expend political capital support Palestine.

Unpaid Internships

[ 25 ] August 5, 2014 |

The more unpaid interns who sue profitable companies taking advantage of the system to exploit labor without paying them, the sooner this system of exploitation will end.

The Impact of the NLRB McDonald’s Franchise Decision

[ 23 ] July 31, 2014 |

Yesterday’s decision by National Labor Relations Board general counsel Richard Griffin declaring corporations joint employers of the workers in their franchises is a big, big deal. Couple of key rundowns from Steven Greenhouse, Alec MacGillis, and Seth Michaels.

Effectively, Obama’s NLRB has moved the needle significantly toward some of the nation’s poorest and most exploited workers. It gives workers a significant legal tool in their fight for a $15 hourly wage in fast food and is likely to have a domino effect across the subcontracted, temporary, outsourced, and franchised economy. Corporations have spend decades coming up with shady labor practices in order to avoid responsibility for workers, leading to rampant exploitation of workers with no hope of rising toward a middle class. This ruling may well begin the process of changing that by taking away the incentives for corporations to not directly hire their workers. Of course, an appeal is coming and so there is a long ways to go and many fights still to come.

In other words, both parties are the same and Rand Paul is the only progressive alternative in 2016.

Labor and Climate Change

[ 1 ] July 29, 2014 |

The stereotype is that unions oppose any action to fight climate change. Certainly that’s true for some unions, especially the Laborers and United Mine Workers. But it is not true for all unions. In fact, like most issues, organized labor is divided over climate change. That however means there are unions that see the absolute necessity for alliances with environmental organizations and to participate on the side of environmentalism. After all, climate change is very much a working class issue as the effects will be felt disproportionately by the poor.

That Pro-Life Hobby Lobby

[ 102 ] July 29, 2014 |

Hobby Lobby puts its pro-life, pro-child policies into practice:

When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives—on the false grounds that they cause abortions—would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.

Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.

“They didn’t even want me to come back after having my baby, to provide for it,” she says.

And here I thought Hobby Lobby was acting out of very strong principle for life and not because it hates women and wants to punish them for having sex.

There’s also this gem:

When Allen applied for unemployment benefits, she says Hobby Lobby’s corporate office gave the unemployment agency a false version of events, claiming she could have taken off personal leave but chose not to. In the end, Allen says she won her claim for unemployment benefits, but she felt she had been wrongly discriminated based on the fact that she was pregnant. In February 2012 she sued Hobby Lobby, but her lawsuit was swiftly dropped because, like most—if not all—Hobby Lobby employees, Allen had signed away her rights to sue the company.

Though the multibillion-dollar, nearly 600-store chain took its legal claim against the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court when it didn’t want to honor the health insurance requirements of the Affordable Care Act, the company forbids its employees from seeking justice in the court of law.

Allen had signed a binding arbitration agreement upon taking the job, though she says she doesn’t remember doing so. The agreement, which all Hobby Lobby employees are required to sign, forces employees to resolve legal disputes outside of court through a process known as arbitration.

Lying so she couldn’t get unemployment is very special, but forcing employees to sign documents waiving their right to sue the company in order to be hired should be as illegal as the yellow-dog contract. I would ask how something like that is even legal in this nation, but of course I already know why–because corporations control our lives in ways they have not in a century.

McDonald’s Ruled a “Joint Employer”

[ 29 ] July 29, 2014 |

Big news for workers’ rights today. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled McDonald’s a “joint employer.” This basically invalidates the claim used by fast food corporations that franchise out the stores that they are not responsible for what happens to the workers. Of course this is going to be challenged, but it opens up an attack on one of the ways corporations protect themselves from liability while undermining workers’ rights. The ability of workers to, say, sue McDonald’s for the bad working conditions of their stores would be a major gains in labor rights.

Lydia DePillis wrote on the potential of this decision a couple of weeks ago

That may be true of some franchise models. In the case of McDonald’s, though, advocates argue that the fast-food giant’s franchise agreement and actual business practices are so restrictive and pervasive that franchise owners have little latitude with their staffing arrangements and no choice but to keep labor costs as low as possible. In a somewhat unusual arrangement, McDonald’s even controls its own real estate and extracts exorbitant rents from its franchisees, who are on the hook for expensive renovations. All that has driven profit margins down to the point where former McDonald’s executive Richard Adams, now a consultant, estimates that about a quarter of franchises don’t even generate positive cash flow for the owner. That doesn’t give them many options.


It’s not just fast food, though: The Browning-Ferris decision could impact janitors, nurses, assembly-line techs, clerical workers, you name it. But what does having a joint employer look like in practice? How do you bargain with two bosses at once?

For the closest example of how this might work, look to show business, says Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine.

The big movie studios, after all, haven’t directly employed the people they depend on — like writers, set designers and lighting techs — since the 1940s. But they all know they have to deal with the unions that represent them, which set standard rates for their services. “You get access to all that labor, but you’re going to pay minimum terms,” says Fisk. “People who work in Hollywood recognize that if they all start working for half as much, writers won’t be able to pay their mortgages.”

Things could work similarly in other types of service industries, if it were clear that a large employer couldn’t just pick the contractor that agreed to provide labor for cheap.

The Seafarers

[ 11 ] July 27, 2014 |

I was unaware that Stanley Kubrick had made a documentary about the Seafarers International Union in 1953. I have not seen it, but it is now available here, although I will have to wait until I am back in the U.S. to watch it.

Apple Treats Labor Like Dirt

[ 89 ] July 23, 2014 |

Given that Steve Jobs was a sociopath and given the labor conditions at overseas factories where Apple products are made, it’s not at all hard to believe that the company would treat their U.S. labor horribly:

A state court in California has granted class certification to nearly 21,000 current and former Apple employees over claims that the company failed to provide timely meal and rest breaks as required by the law, and sometimes denied workers rest breaks altogether.

In a ruling late Monday, Judge Ronald S. Prager of the Superior Court of California for the County of San Diego granted the class certification for a large group of retail employees and workers at corporate headquarters.

Under California law, employers are generally required to provide 30-minute lunch breaks within an employee’s first five hours at work each day and provide a 10-minute rest break every four hours or major fraction thereof. In addition, California law requires employers to provide a second rest break for shifts that run six to 10 hours, and Judge Prager wrote that the evidence showed that Apple had failed to authorized second rest breaks under these circumstances.

Freedom Summer and Union Organizing

[ 1 ] July 23, 2014 |

Freedom Summer was 50 years ago this year and its anniversary has been pretty underreported. Anyway, this is an interesting piece from one of the white organizers about the relationship between organizing civil rights workers and union organizing in Mississippi. Obviously, biracial unionism did not exactly take hold in Mississippi or the rest of the South but still, there are potentially useful lessons here.


[ 25 ] July 22, 2014 |

I know I am supposed to be all doom and gloom all the time. But that’s only true 99% of the time. Sometimes there are victories. Such as the concession workers for the San Francisco Giants who just ratified their first contract with 98% of the members voting yes.

Instead, it took place in the stands where 800 seasonal concession workers organized by UNITE HERE Local 2 just ratified by 98% a contract with Centerplate, the subcontracted concessionaire at Giants Park and one of the largest hospitality companies in North America.

The agreement provides the best wages and benefits in the country for their type of work.

The terms included an immediate raise of $1.40 an hour with some back pay, strong job security protections, dental insurance and fully paid family medical coverage without co-pays through the contract’s 2019 expiration date.

The agreement will also fund a big improvement in pension benefits and will tie future health care and wage increases to San Francisco’s big hotels – so when Local 2 hotel workers get wage and benefit increases, Centerplate will match them at Giants stadium.

This convergence of interests is not accidental.

Local 2 members regularly discuss the importance of solidarity. Membership unity across job classifications and work sites strengthens the union and, as results indicate, increases its bargaining leverage considerably.

Tying their salaries with those of the hotel workers in a strong local is a big deal.

Bad Business Fee

[ 50 ] July 22, 2014 |

Should businesses who pay atrocious wages, just offloading the responsibility to keep people fed and clothed onto the state, be taxed to make up for it?

Can you name the worst job you’ve ever had? For Cliff Martin, that’s not an easy question. All three of his current jobs—delivering newspapers, delivering magazines and working as a janitor—are strong contenders. Taken together, they pay so poorly that the 20-year-old Northfield, Minnesota, native relies on MNsure, the state Medicaid plan, for healthcare and lives at home with his father to save money. But what if Martin’s bosses had to fork over a fee to the state for paying him so badly? That money, in turn, could be used to help support Martin and his fellow low-wage workers in a variety of ways, from direct subsidies for food and housing to social programs such as Medicaid or public transportation.

TakeAction Minnesota, a network that promotes economic and racial justice in the state, wants to make that fee a reality. It’s developing the framework for a bill that it hopes will be introduced in 2015 by state legislators who have worked with the network in the past. As conceived, the “bad business fee” legislation would require companies to disclose how many of their employees are receiving public assistance from the state or federal government. Companies would then pay a fine based on the de facto subsidies they receive by externalizing labor costs onto taxpayers.

TakeAction Minnesota’s plan is one prong of a larger national effort. As progressive organizations grapple with how to turn years of public outrage over income inequality into policies for structural change, a network of labor and community organizing groups has seized upon the bad business fee as a solution that might take off.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. Moreover, if one state promoted this, even if it didn’t pass, I do believe you’d see a pretty quick turnaround in workers’ wages, at least locally. A real threat to punish corporations for their antisocial behavior would likely cause change. We’ve seen that many times in the last century and the repeal and erasure of that century of gains in recent years reflects the defeat of the forces who forced those changes, especially but not solely labor unions, a strategy corporations affected through capital mobility and outsourcing work abroad.

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